Fashion: Philadelphia’s Fashion Industry Grapples With Societal Issues

Where inclusivity fits within the Philadelphia fashion industry, and where there’s still room for growth.

“I’ve always been into dresses,” Atiya Lewis said, her voice filling the basement studio on North Moss Street in West Philadelphia. All around, curvy mannequins eavesdrop. They’re dressed in embellished evening gowns, as if awaiting the most extravagant prom of the decade. It’s hard not to feel underdressed among this crowd, even for a rainy Wednesday night in late February. 

The Philadelphia-based luxe wear designer has a steadfast glint in her eyes. She recalls her sixth grade Halloween with nostalgia. Like many other 11-year-old girls, Lewis’ one desire was to dress up as Cinderella. She was mesmerized by the way the ballgown moved, as if the princess were floating on a cloud of blue tulle. 

Armed with the knowledge that no costume store would have a dress her size, Lewis began hand-sewing her very first Atiya Joanne label gown, though she didn’t know it yet. In true Cinderella fashion, Lewis used scraps from her mother’s blankets and curtains, refusing to let her physical size limit her dreams. 

The 22-year-old is the first designer for plus sized garments to graduate from Moore College of Art & Design. From hosting her own model casting and ordering specific mannequins, to creating an entirely new size chart and leaving behind the necessary resources for those who want to follow her path, Lewis left a legacy at the college. 

Atiya Lewis (Credit: Will Stickney/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

“There is no ideal look,” Lewis, pictured above, explained. “If you’re 5 feet, 2 inches and you want to model, then model. They have heels high enough. And, if you wear size 30, OK, come to me.”

For Lewis, it’s that simple. For others, it’s never that easy.

This unyielding effort for inclusivity is characteristic of the modernizing Philadelphia fashion community. Maybe it’s because, unlike its established fashion capital counterparts in Milan, Paris, New York, and London, Philadelphia’s industry is relatively new. 

Historically, Philadelphia fashion has taken a back seat to the more cutthroat New York, North America’s largest retail market. NYC generates more than $18 billion in annual retail sales, according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Here, consumers in greater Center City Philadelphia generate just over $365 million in retail demand, according to the 2018 Center City Philadelphia Retail report

Yet Philadelphia’s fashion sector is growing, and not just economically. The city celebrated its 15th Philly Fashion Week this year, a biannual event which attracted 10,000 fashion executives and consumers, according to a press release from the office of Philadelphia City Councilmember David Oh

The city’s style varies by neighborhood. Indie designers near Fabric Row rework sustainable materials. Streetwear looks repped by Meek Mill, Tierra Whack and the like showcase organic North Philly style. In West Philly, flowing culottes and sophisticated silhouettes garner even Project Runway’s attention. Small boutiques in South Philly are not overlooked either, bringing quality to upscale everyday garments. Luxury brands in Center City and independent stylists make up for everything in between, proving there’s quite a range of fashion in the city. 

“Sometimes it can be streetwear, sometimes it’s three piece suits” fashion influencer Ramill Carr said. “We just have a Philly swagger that’s uniquely ours.”

At fashion week events, most designers make it a point to get to know one another personally. But just because it’s a relatively small community with variety doesn’t mean it isn’t selective. 

“The industry is wishy-washy,” Amber Connally, a 25-year-old curvy model, said about Philadelphia. “There’s a lot of competition, everyone’s trying to fight their way to the top and they don’t care what it takes to get there.”

Connally exudes confidence with a smile so wide it would stretch to her hairline, if not for the apples of her cheeks. She’s not the type to worry about a little competition, but still, her words hold true.

Shoalyn Brown (Credit: Will Stickney/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

“Sure, there’s a lot of creative people in Philadelphia,” Shoalyn Brown, a local clothing designer and recent Moore graduate pictured above, said. “But there’s also a lot of overlooked people, as well.” 

Lewis attributes her own inclusion in the Philadelphia fashion community to her connections from Moore.

“My professors [were involved with] fashion week [in 2019] and even Paris Fashion Week this year,” Lewis said. “So just by having the connections that I have through the college I went to is a big help.”

Even so, she is still “working very hard to break into the industry,” she said. 

Which is Philadelphia’s paradox. In a fashion community that prides itself for standing out against the norm through edginess, unique looks, and underground street labels, being a nonconformist becomes popular. However, looking special, because of a body type, ethnicity, or lifestyle, can also be tokenized. Being “inclusive” really means being selective through unrealistic expectations and inexplicable parameters set by the city’s trend setters. 

In September 2018 Connally was cast as a plus model for Philadelphia fashion week shows, but sat on the sidelines for the next two seasons. Designers chose to move forward with only standard size models. According to Connally, this left Lov’n My Curves, a fashion show dedicated to plus models with a mission to provide inspiration and empowerment, as the only show to cast curvy models for two straight seasons. Some feel while fashion week organizers are doing what they can to break down barriers, others bear responsibility too.

“Philly Fashion Week organizers can’t force a designer to pick me just because I’m there,” Connally said, noting how designers are solely responsible for choosing which models walk for them. 

2020 Spring Philly Fashion Week (Credit: Will Stickney/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

What’s left are the true outsiders: those who cling to fashion as a lifelong dream, platform, or escape, yet still are the exception. They struggle to pinpoint an undefinable understanding of inclusion, while continuing to be negatively impacted by the industry’s unconscious biases. 

But those outsiders are a rising tide crashing into the scene in whatever way possible, redefining the systemic and constricting concepts of fashion into something more fluid. And as they make demands for “inclusivity,” the term becomes even more ambiguous. It’s a topic that leaves plenty of people divided, both inside and outside the world of fashion. How does the fashion industry, or any industry, include people of all races, sizes, and abilities without tokenizing them? How can the industry be used as a platform to spread awareness, and should it?

“I think [inclusion] needs to come from a genuine and pure place,” Hashim Ahmed, a fashion designer who goes by the name Seven, said. As someone who admits he is “just a little outside the box,” he believes the fashion industry should think of fashion as skin.

“Because everyone has skin, so fashion starts to look different,” he said.

Seven’s boundary-pushing beliefs and practices often find him outside of norm. He includes handicapped individuals and people experiencing homelessness as those also excluded from fashion’s status quo yet worthy of inclusion. He’s come out before his models walked — unheard of in the fashion community — and read from a script.

“I introduced my piece and gave it meaning,” he stated, explaining how he wanted to discuss the collection, Mood Swings, representing his own experiences with mental illness.

Seven (Credit: Ward Legacy Studios)

In an act forbidden by Muslims, Seven donned an Islamic thobe, embellished with his own art, to a public fashion show.

Models like Connally and designers such as Brown, Lewis and Seven are not just requesting membership into the fashion industry but demanding answers. 

They want to know: What is a fully inclusive fashion industry? 

The Big Picture

In 2017, Dr. Marquita Williams found herself sitting in on many board meetings within the Philadelphia fashion industry to discuss inclusivity. Williams was particularly interested, as a volunteer for several social equity programs, along with being someone who worked with adolescent youth on the importance of body positivity. As a psychologist with an extensive background in mental health, she realized these “inclusivity” discussions were not doing enough because they only mentioned diversity among ethnic groups for models sized 0-2. 

Seeing a need to promote body positivity and self-love within fashion, Williams broke away from these groups and created Lov’n My Curves. After one season, Lov’n My Curves captured the attention of Philly Fashion Week’s CEO, Kerry Scott. By the fall of 2017, it became the first plus size partner with Philly Fashion Week. The show featured all plus size models, from size 12 up to 26, something never done before in Philadelphia. 

Luv’n My Curves at 2020 Spring Philly Fashion Week (Models: Farrah (left), Jazzmin Williams (right), Designer: Classic Beauty Inc., Photo Credit: KSW Visuals)

A plus size show during fashion week does not suddenly make a community totally inclusive or diverse; it was just the first step. But it did indicate industry leaders were beginning to push back against unconscious biases.

“Inclusion, in the larger scheme, is great.” Williams asserted. “But it’s not going to be the type of inclusion like you would see by having a fully plus size show.”

That “larger scheme” inclusion seen in the more general shows walks a fine line between diversity and tokenism. In 2015, Connally attended castings determined to be recognized. When she was cast, designers either didn’t have clothes her size or placed her in cotton T-shirts paired with her own jeans. Her 00 counterparts walked the runway in full-blown luxewear. Standard designers struggle to imagine plus size looks in their collection. And those who do, dress them conservatively.

“We don’t look good because designers aren’t putting us in clothes that fit us or complement our body types, because they’re just trying to get us out there,” said Connally.

In a fashion illustration class, Lewis’ professor showed her how to draw a curvy size model but dressed her “like she was going to church,” said Lewis. 

Atiya Lewis illustrations (Credit: Will Stickney/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

The responsibility should fall on the designer to make sure their garments compliment different body types showcased in their collections.

“I’m very personal [with my models], and I think that’s what makes me different,” said Brown. “Maybe designers should be a little bit more personal. Like, ‘How can I help you feel beautiful in what I make?’”

It’s not just about fulfilling a diversity check mark for runway collections. Lewis and Connally are trying to change the stereotype and prove plus size people can wear the same styles as those who fit into standard sizes. 

“If you’re about to go to the club, you’re not wearing a turtleneck and a skirt to your ankles,” Lewis said laughing, before taking a more serious tone. “Plus size people shouldn’t have to either.”

Lewis’ Atiya Joanne label was the only plus size collection to walk the first night of fashion week this spring. Taking advantage of robust, curvy figures, Lewis’ dresses had shape, stature, volume, and confidence. She undermined plus size stereotypes with exaggerated trails pouring over the catwalk and leg slits starting at the waist. Bold stripes and sheer lace claimed sexiness, while tiny feathers and beads that quietly blinked under the stage lights, asserted romance, dignity, and femininity. 

Atiya Lewis (Credit: Will Stickney/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

Both the designs and the models were unapologetic. And the crowd, already three vodka sodas deep into the show, exploded with the kind of applause usually meant for a sports arena.

Connally walked for Lewis, along with four other designers, opening night. She has come a long way since her T-shirt experience just five years ago.

“I do this for myself, and others,” Connally said. “I want to be that person I wish I had to look up to when I started modeling. I definitely want to see more people like me on the runway.” 

Brown, a designer who uses fashion as a platform, would also like to see more plus models in the industry but she is worried that there are entry limitations.

She notices as designers begin to see specific curvy models in others’ collections, those models gain popularity and are rewarded through increased exposure, without making room for other plus models trying to break into the industry. Which is no different from it is for any model, competing for a limited number of places. But when there is an even smaller number of opportunities for plus size models to appear, it makes the competition tougher and the stakes even higher for those with that body type.

“The problem I have is finding a place for these models so that they have the same opportunities as those people that are already walking down the runway,” Brown said. 

A broader selection of curvy models and more entry opportunities would lessen tokenism felt by those already included.

“Why does [the crowd] feel like they have to cheer for me because I’m the only plus size model walking for that designer?” Connally still occasionally catches herself thinking, despite her success.

Amber Connalley modeling Atiya Joanne. (Credit: Durrell Hospedale/Make Wonders Productions LLC)

So, how can the narrative around plus size models change when there’s a potential for tokenism? Perhaps the best way to fight for inclusivity is through exclusivity, as in Williams’ Lov’n My Curves all plus size show.

“By having this platform, we’re pushing designers who’ve stayed in a more traditional lane to step outside of their box,” Williams said. “We get calls all the time from traditional designers who are saying they’re interested in trying out curvy models and clothes.”

Williams pays close attention to every detail of the show in order to make sure not a single element reinforces some stereotype or sweeping generalization.

“There’s considerations from the back of the house to the front around what it means to be inclusive,” Williams said.

A show that highlights larger, taller people, for example, tends to attract larger, taller audience members. Williams makes sure to accommodate every individual as best she can, down to the very size of their chairs, and distance between them.

“I want fashion to really be accessible to every body, pun intended,” Williams said. 

And, maybe it will be. Currently, only an eighth of online department stores offer plus-size clothing. Yet the American plus size apparel industry is projected to grow by $24 billion this year, according to Coresight Research.

“Designers will want to be a part of this curvy revolution,” Williams said.

Getting in the Head Space

A recent study by the Royal Society of Public Health affirmed that Instagram was the most detrimental social media site for young people’s mental health. Image-driven Instagram posts, the bread-and-butter for fashion and makeup influencers, led to anxiety and concerns for body image among young adults, according to the Child Mind Institute

“That’s why I didn’t like fashion, because you have to look one way,” Seven said. “You have to be cool, dope, beautiful. But that’s not the world.” 

In its essence, fashion is exclusive. Not just in terms of who can model, who can design clothes, and which items are trendy enough. In a larger sense, exclusivity is about: Who has access to fashion? More importantly, who doesn’t have access? 

Attached to her senior runway collection mood-board, Brown had her own north star, a self portrait on scrappy paper. A year ago she was sitting on the train when a man experiencing homelessness, someone she would come to know as Will, approached her. He offered a quick sketch in exchange for money. 

Shoalyn Brown with Will (Credit: Shoalyn Brown)

It wasn’t until looking at the drawing on the platform she realized she had seen this man just months before. She felt the urge to chase the train as it pulled away, desperate to thank him.

The first time Brown saw him, she was in the back of an Uber. He was crumpled over on a subway vent at Henderson and Lehigh. She noticed his pen and a pad of paper and was instantly struck: Here he was, clearly struggling with his own life, but still dedicated to his art. At that moment, she knew her senior capsule for Moore College of Arts & Design would be used as a platform to discuss mental health.

“I knew that he was a struggling artist but at the same time pushing for what he loves to do, and that inspired me,” Brown said. Thus, her collection’s main point; be who you are as a creative.

In the spring of 2019, Brown held a community painting event where she called on friends, colleagues, and social media followers to paint whatever came to mind when thinking about mental health and how to cope with it. Brown later turned the paintings into a print, which she placed on fabric bodysuits in her runway collection.

Shoalyn Brown with model wearing bodysuit of her design (Credit: Senia Lopez)

“I wanted to communicate that even though mental health is a mess, it’s your mess,” Brown said. “And no matter how much you try to hide it, you will never be able to hide yourself.”

Brown struggled with her own mental health growing up. She watched her mother and fellow students go through it. A show highlighting mental health as a complicated, unique, lifelong journey seemed only natural.

Her final piece down the runway was a model in a full bodysuit, with no skin exposure. Unlike the other pieces, Brown placed a massive sunflower on this model’s face. One of the painters had drawn the flower to represent her own escape from the domestic violence she was victim to. The sunflower represented safety, happiness, and security. 

“I wanted to use that as a focal point because, mostly, our faces are what defines us.” Brown said, proudly. “I think that was a perfect place to put it.”

While topics like domestic violence, AIDS, trans rights, and women’s rights have been discussed, Seven fears mental health has been neglected. 

In a study on sucide rates and occupation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that working in the fashion industry correlates to developing a mental illness. In the 2015 study, fashion was one of the top three industries for high suicide rates by occupation for both males and females. Even the elite aren’t safe: Alexander McQueen and Kate Spade both took their own lives.

Seven (Credit: Benni Black)

“Mental illness doesn’t have a face,” Seven said. “So when people hear about it, the first thing they think is, ‘Oh that person, they are crazy.’”

This stereotype is attributed to the lack of knowledge on the subject.

“It doesn’t have to be scary,” Seven said. “It can just be this is what it is. And it’s different for everyone.”

Brown agreed. 

“I think when people do talk about their mental health, they become clinicalized,” she said. “I wanted to switch that around. No, you’re not crazy. You do belong. You don’t have to be like everyone else.”

When Seven was 24, one of his friends slipped him something. Shortly after, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic bipolar. The recent college graduate and successful young adult had lost everything. He became homeless, was in and out of mental hospitals, and was self imprisoned in his own home for two years. 

“I didn’t even know what mental health was,” Seven said. “I was like OK, whatever. And I didn’t know the effects of it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than half of people who committed suicide in 2018 did not have a known mental health condition. 

Growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, Seven didn’t have Black artists to look up to. The norm was basketball players, football players, and drug dealers.

“To be an expressive Black artist who has a mental illness …” Seven paused. “Unheard of.”

Now the designer uses fashion as a vessel to tell his story. His collection Mood Swings walked this spring in Philly Fashion Week. He’s using the line to spread awareness for mental health.

Part of a collection presented by Seven at the 2020 Philly Fashion Week (Credit: Will Stickney/Philadelphia Neighborhoods)

The Silver Lining

When thinking about inclusivity, it’s obvious to consider physical appearances. And even among this, there’s controversy. Is inclusivity determined by ethnicity? Weight and height? Sex? Gender? Age? Abilities? What about by profession? 

Is it limited to designers and models? Or does this inclusion consider makeup artists, hair stylists, fashion magazine editors, chief executives, heads of fashion houses?

The definitions made to support inclusivity should also be applied less myopically. While the industry could just open its arms to every person, regardless of physical attributes, it has to think broadly about how to include differences as invisible as mental health, which are often neglected because they are more complicated to represent and discuss.

Creatives like Seven and Brown use fashion as a platform to spread awareness.

Even those in the industry are at a loss. Some argue fashion needs to take social responsibility for the capitalist excesses it supports. 

“We have people in fashion that say, ‘I’m just here to make this garment,’” Brown said. “But at the same time, they need to have a bigger responsibility on its impact on the world.” 

Brown argues major labels need to understand their effect on children, teenagers, and adults throughout their entire lives. These brands serve as constant reminders of the distinctions between the haves and the have-nots, and the attractive versus the unattractive.

Seven disagrees. 

“I think a lot of time, feeling yourself, being comfortable with yourself, that comes from within,” he said. “It doesn’t come from an industry.”

Not to say the industry doesn’t play a part.

Seven (Credit: Jay Masters)

“The industry is just a way of normalizing it, and of telling our stories,” Seven added. “Fashion can influence someone to make them greater, and force artists to feel like they need to have more responsibility.” 

There is no simple answer to inclusivity for anyone. But, for those in this city’s fashion industry, maybe the silver lining is this: Philadelphia, if anything, is figuring it out. While still trying to understand its own stretch marks.

Words by Nathalie Cavallo, images by Will Stickney.

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